The sensational affair of 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) toppled a government and earned the former Prime Minister of Malaysia a twelve-year prison sentence. One of the more spectacular assets at the end of the golden money trail was, the Malaysian Admiralty Court found in 2018, a 91.5-metre luxury yacht purchased with 1MDB monies funnelled through multiple layers of intermediate bank accounts. This book recounts the involvement of leading Malaysian admiralty lawyer, Sitpah Selvaratnam, acting pro bono, in the yacht’s recovery and realisation for the benefit of the people of Malaysia as owners of 1MDB.
The 1MDB affair generated worldwide interest among law enforcement agencies. Their intervention led to the detention in Indonesia and eventual return to Malaysia of the yacht - called then the Equanimity, and now the Tranquility. At that point the new government’s Attorney General, Tommy Thomas, asked Sitpah Selvaratnam, to act for 1MDB.
Over the next year, Sitpah Selvaratnam and a team of lawyers addressed every sort of challenge, under intense public scrutiny. The book is both instructive and engaging in its explanation of the legal, technical and commercial complexities and in putting them into a human, personal and national perspective. Nationally, the author presents a holistic exercise in cleansing and recuperation, undertaken by a gender-diverse, multi-cultural and multi-faith legal team. From the human and personal perspective, this is the story of an eminently distinguished practitioner, with the inner strength, courage, drive and belief in justice to make her way in what has (in Malaysia, as elsewhere) traditionally been the man’s world of maritime law.
Once the Equanimity was under arrest, an order was obtained for her sale pendente lite. The 1MDB’s title could then be established by further use of mutual legal assistance arrangements internationally. Meanwhile, the vessel and its eighteen crew members needed the care, comforts and security arrangements that any superyacht expects. The monthly cost of USD400,000 and the clogging of the vessel’s filters in Port Klang could be reduced by a move to the Langkawi Naval Base. But an expensive five-year special survey was looming, and sale was urgent. Much work was done to assure potential buyers that a sale to a buyer approved by the court would, under general admiralty law principles, eliminate all risk of any other claim to the vessel. But the potential buyers of superyachts are few and far between and prone to paranoia about such risks. This book discusses the law and the advantages which the Beijing Draft Convention, prepared under the auspices of UNCITRAL, would, if agreed, offer in this respect.
As it was, an initial open market tender for sale failed to yield anywhere near the appraised value of USD130 million (kept secret from bidders). Ignorance of the appraised value was evidently off-putting. Tactics had to change, and the court’s permission was obtained to enter into a private sale and allow direct approaches to the Malaysian government, by-passing the central broker. Commission was saved and a sale at USD126 million was agreed. Even so, the author had a hard time persuading the Admiralty Court that the price was fair. But she succeeded, and her engagement and enjoyment are evident on every page.
And what about the Tranquility herself? Did she or her new owners live up to her new name? Evidently not. Within six months, the internet records, she was up for sale again, at an increased price - but there is no sign that anyone has paid this. Sitpah Selvaratnam and her team evidently got it right, and she has written a delightful and illuminating vignette about what she can justifiably regard as the experience of a lifetime.